The Falabella is the smallest breed of horse in the world, typically standing between 28 to 34 inches tall at the withers. Despite their diminutive size, they possess all the features and proportions of a typical horse.

Falabella horses are incredibly rare and make up a tiny portion of miniature horses registered annually. Only purebred minis that can trace their bloodlines to foundation stock in Argentina are considered Falabellas.

Despite the high demand for Falabellas in North America, the small breeding population contributes to a risk of health problems associated with inbreeding. Like all miniature breeds, Falabellas need nutrition and management programs tailored to their unique size.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Falabella breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Falabella horses.

Falabella Horse History

The Falabella breed originated from a breeding program in Argentina in the 1800s. Since then, Falabellas have spread worldwide and significantly influenced the development of other miniature horse breeds.

Origin

Like other South American horse breeds, Falabellas descend from horses brought to the Western Hemisphere alongside settlers and explorers. Many of these horses had Iberian bloodlines.

Geographically isolated populations of horses in the southern part of the continent developed without outside influence for decades. By the mid-19th century, a significant population of smaller, inbred equines roamed the Pampas plains of Argentina.

Patrick Newtall bred local Criollo horses descending from these animals to create a herd of small but perfectly proportioned miniature horses. By 1879, Newtall transferred his breeding program to his son-in-law, Juan Falabella. [1]

The Falabella ranch continued developing the breed and maintained careful records of these miniature horses for generations before creating a formal breed registry in 1940.

Historic Use

The Falabella family initially developed the breed to achieve a consistent height of under 100 cm (40 inches). Today, most Falabellas are even shorter.

Other small horse breeds were developed to fulfill jobs that required a diminutive stature, such as working as pit ponies. But many of these pony breeding programs compromised conformation quality for size. [2]

Early Falabella breeding programs prioritized maintaining the proportions of full-sized horses. Selection for horses with elegant conformations and small statures made them popular pets and status symbols in their native country.

The first Falabella horses arrived in North America in 1962. Some of these horses crossed with other minis to develop the American Miniature horse. While the breed is found worldwide today, purebred Falabellas are increasingly rare.

Breed Registry

The Falabella Miniature Horses Association (FMHA) is the official breed registry and organization for Falabella horses in North America. Established in 1973, the FMHA maintains purebred Falabella and Falabella blend registries.

Falabellas are also eligible for registration with the American Miniature Horse Association and the American Miniature Horse Registry.

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Breed Characteristics

Through selective breeding, the average height of Falabella horses has decreased over time. But despite their small size, Falabellas maintain conformation similar to full-sized horse breeds.

However, different breeders may produce slightly different types of these mini horses.

Conformation

Most Falabellas measure under 8 hands (32 inches) at their withers. While smaller sizes are more desirable in the breed, a short stature should never come at the cost of correct conformation.

Falabella miniature horses can resemble the type of any full-size horse. Arabian, Quarter Horse, and Thoroughbred type Falabellas are most common in North America. Recent breeding trends have increased refinement for all breed types.

Their bodies are small and compact. While most horse breeds have eighteen vertebrae in their spine, skeletal studies reveal Falabellas have seventeen vertebrae. These horses also have narrow, oval-shaped hooves. [1]

Colours

Bay and black are the most common coat colours in the Falabella breed.

The Falabella family favoured horses with appaloosa colouring, but pinto patterns and diluted colours also occur in Falabellas.

Temperament

Falabellas have good dispositions and friendly personalities. Many owners find these horses are gentle with children. They are also intelligent and have excellent work ethics, making the breed easy to train.

Owners shouldn’t assume miniature horses are safer to handle simply because they are smaller than full-size horses. All breeds need proper training to encourage desirable behaviour.

Disciplines

Some owners enjoy teaching their Falabellas tricks. Other Falabella horses excel as show horses competing in halter classes. The breed is too small for most riders, including children, but they are strong enough to pull adults in driving disciplines.

Some miniature horse shows include jumping classes for Falabellas. Handlers run alongside their horses while they jump over obstacles. But not all Falabella owners show their horses, and many of these horses find homes as pets.

Their small stature also makes Falabellas suitable as guide animals and therapy horses. These miniature horses can access buildings that larger horses can’t and are more approachable to people scared of large animals.

Falabella Health Profile

Carefully controlling the Falabella breeding population allowed breeders to produce smaller horses, but inbreeding has also contributed to an increased risk of genetic disease. These horses are also vulnerable to health problems commonly found in miniature breeds. But with proper care, Falabellas can live exceptionally long lives.

Genetic Diseases

The Falabella’s diminutive size is a result of over a century of selective inbreeding. However, such extensive inbreeding can reduce genetic diversity and heighten the risk of congenital diseases in the population.

A smaller gene pool contributes to inbreeding depression, resulting in diminished health, fertility, and increased disease susceptibility in affected breeds.

A particular concern for miniature horse breeders is equine dwarfism, a genetic disorder marked by abnormal bone growth, resulting in serious physical complications for affected horses.

To mitigate this risk, responsible breeding practices and genetic testing are essential. [3]

Health Problems

Skeletal disorders are more prevalent in miniature breeds, including angular limb deformities, luxated patellas, and upward fixation of the patella. One study also found several cases of scapulohumeral osteoarthritis in Falabella horses. [4]

Research suggests miniature horse breeds are also susceptible to dental problems. Falabellas have smaller skulls than full-size horses, but with comparatively larger teeth. This can result in dental overcrowding and reduced chewing efficiency. [5]

Inadequate chewing of coarse feed may contribute to a higher risk of colic in these horses. Impaction in the small colon due to a fecalith, enterolith, or undigested feed is the most common cause of colic in miniature horses. [6]

Gestation in Falabellas can last up to two months longer than for average-sized horses. Miniature breeds also have a higher risk of dystocia because of the mismatch between fetal head size and mare pelvic size. [7]

Miniature horse breeds also have an increased risk of hyperlipemia, a lipid metabolism disorder that can lead to liver disease, anorexia, and death. The disease can affect obese or non-obese Falabellas subject to stress, pregnancy, or feed deprivation. [8]

Care and Management

Falabellas and other miniature horse breeds have similar basic care needs to their full-sized relatives. However, their unique size and risk of certain health conditions require specialized management to support their well-being.

Work with your veterinarian and other equine health practitioners to implement a preventative wellness plan that includes regular veterinary exams as well as:

  • Vaccinations and Deworming: Falabellas are susceptible to the same infectious diseases and internal parasites as larger horses. They require routine vaccinations and strategic deworming to maintain their health.
  • Dental Care: Falabellas need more frequent dental exams than other breeds to maintain tooth balance and prevent dental issues.
  • Farrier Care: Regular farrier care is essential to keep your Falabella sound, even if they are not exercised. Their uniquely shaped feet require a hoof care professional experienced in trimming miniature horses.
  • Grooming: Although Falabellas are not ponies, they can grow thick winter coats like ponies and often have long manes and tails. Daily grooming is important for promoting skin health and maintaining their coat in good condition.
  • Housing and Fencing: Falabellas adapt well to various housing situations, provided they have access to shelter. Ensure all fences and barriers are secure to prevent escape, especially considering their small size.
  • Turnout: Adequate turnout is beneficial for reducing stress in Falabellas and lowering the risk of hyperlipemia. [8]
  • Companionship: Miniature horses are commonly used as companions for full-size horses, but turning Falabellas out with other minis is safer. Larger horses can seriously injure these small equines if they kick them.

Falabella Nutrition

The optimal diet for Falabella horses is one that fulfills their nutritional requirements without overfeeding or underfeeding energy. In addition to a balanced diet, these horses also need a feeding program that avoid long periods without food.

Weight Maintenance

Maintaining an appropriate weight in your Falabella horse is a critical aspect of their overall health management. These horses are easy keepers, meaning they have an efficient metabolism and can maintain body condition with relatively little feed.

This characteristic makes them particularly susceptible to obesity, which can lead to a range of health issues and put excess strain on their musculoskeletal system. Miniature horses are also prone to equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis. [9]

Regularly monitoring your Falabella’s body condition score can help you track changes in their weight and adjust their diet as needed.

Consult your veterinarian if you noticed unexplained weight loss or a sudden change of appetite in your Falabella. This could indicate an underlying digestive issue, potentially signaling a risk of hyperlipidemia.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 70 kg (150 lb) Falabella with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 4 g (1/4 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 25 g (1/4 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 105%
Protein (% of Req) 128%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%

 

Falabella horses should be provided with a forage-based diet and should avoid commercial concentrates. Grain-based feeds contain high levels of sugar and starch, which can contribute to weight gain, digestive upset, and laminitis risk in this breed. [10]

While forage is sufficient to meet the energy and protein requirements of most Falabellas, hay is often deficient in several essential nutrients. Feeding a concentrated vitamin and mineral can help fill nutritional gaps and balance the diet without adding excess calories.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement designed to fortify forage-based diets. This supplement provides vitamins, trace minerals, amino acids, yeast cultures, and other nutrients that support overall health in Falabella horses.

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Forage

Free-choice forage should provide the foundation of your Falabella’s diet. Offering free-choice hay supports optimal digestive function and enables horses to express natural grazing behaviours.

Falabellas, like other miniature horses, also need to avoid extended periods without forage to reduce the risk of hyperlipemia. However, these small horses can consume their daily hay ration in as little as a few hours per day.

To prevent Falabellas from eating their forage too quickly, provide hay in a slow feeder and use a grazing muzzle to reduce grass intake during turnout. If your Falabella is overweight, use a dry lot for turnout instead of pasture.

Horses not in exercise are expected to consume about 2% of their body weight in forage dry matter daily. Since Falabellas weigh significantly less than average horses, they need less hay per day. A 70 kg (150 lb) Falabella will typically eat 1.4 kg (3 pounds) of hay dry matter daily.

Miniature horses benefit from average quality, low-starch, low-sugar grass hay. This will supply low levels of hydrolyzable carbohydrate (HC) to support metabolic health. HC is the portion of non-soluble carbohydrates (NSC), namely ESC + starch, which is digestible in the small intestine and contributes to the insulin response.

Energy-dense hay should be avoided as it can encourage excessive weight gain. Furthermore, owners should avoid coarse, poor-quality hay, which can increase the risk of impaction colic in Falabellas. Alfalfa hay should also be avoided due to the increased risk of enteroliths. [11]

Feeding Recommendations

Falabellas should avoid grains in their diet. A forage-based diet, supplemented with vitamins and minerals, is sufficient to meet their nutrient requirements without the risks of high-grain diets.

Instead of gains and commercial concentrates, use fiber-based supplement carriers such as soaked hay pellets or beet pulp. If your horse does need extra energy to support exercise needs, choose fat supplements as a dense calorie source.

Whatever feeds or supplements you give your Falabella, follow instructions carefully to ensure your horse gets an appropriate amount for their body weight. Recommended serving sizes are often too large for these tiny equines. An equine nutritionist can help you determine the correct feeding rate for your horse.

Miniature horse breeds may consume less water than larger horses, but they still need clean, fresh water available at all times. Adequate water intake is essential for preventing impaction colic and maintaining digestive health.

To encourage water consumption, provide your Fallabella with free-choice plain loose salt. Our nutritionists also recommend feeding loose salt in your horse’s daily ration to meet sodium requirements.

Nutritional Supplements

The first step when designing a feeding plan for your Falabella horse is to balance the overall diet and provide all essential vitamins and minerals. Once the diet is balanced, you can consider adding nutritional supplements to address individual needs.

  • MSM is a natural joint supplement that supports the synthesis of collagen and keratin. Feeding MSM supports healthy connective tissue and helps maintain homeostatic regulation of joint inflammation.
  • Jiaogulan is a Chinese herb known for its antioxidant and adaptogenic properties. Jiaogulan is commonly fed to miniature horses to support hoof health, circulation, muscle health and the respiratory system.
  • Optimum Digestive Health is a probiotic and prebiotic supplement that supports hindgut health in Falabella horses. This supplement also contains digestive enzymes, yeast, and immune nucleotides to support digestive function and nutrient absorption.

Have questions about your Falabella horse’s feeding program? Submit their information online for a free consultation with our expert equine nutritionists to get help with formulating a balanced diet.

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References

  1. Endo, H. et al. Three-dimensional CT observation of position and movability of the scapula in the horse using carcasses of Falabella. Anat Histol Embryol. 2019.View Summary
  2. Brooks, S. et al. Morphological variation in the horse: defining complex traits of body size and shape. Anim Genet. 2010.View Summary
  3. Andrade, D. et al. Evaluation of a new variant in the aggrecan gene potentially associated with chondrodysplastic dwarfism in Miniature horses. Sci Rep. 2020. View Summary
  4. Clegg, P. et al. Scapulohumeral osteoarthritis in 20 Shetland ponies, miniature horses and Falabella ponies. Vet Rec. 2001.
  5. Clauss, M. et al. Teeth out of proportion: Smaller horse and cattle breeds have comparatively larger teeth. J Exp Zool Part B Mol Dev Evol. 2022.View Summary
  6. Haupt, J. et al. Surgical treatment of colic in the miniature horse: A retrospective study of 57 cases (1993–2006). Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  7. Van den Branden, E. et al. Dystocia in Miniature Horses and Shetland ponies: assisted vaginal delivery, fetotomy and field Caesarean section. J Equine Vet Sci. 2023.
  8. Mogg, T. et al. Hyperlipidemia, hyperlipemia, and hepatic lipidosis in American miniature horses: 23 cases (1990-1994). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1995. View Summary
  9. Morgan, R. et al. Equine metabolic syndrome. Vet Rec. 2015.View Summary
  10. Zeyner, A. et al. Effect of feeding exercised horses on high-starch or high-fat diets for 390 days. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  11. Hassel, D. et al. Dietary Risk Factors and Colonic pH and Mineral Concentrations in Horses with Enterolithiasis. J Vet Intern Med. 2008. View Summary